A Prussian by birth and attitude, he also may have been a homosexual, which re-gained interest in recent years as America debated repealing the don't ask, don't tell law that a Democratic Party codified in the 1990s under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Born on September 17, 1730, in Magdeburg, Germany, Steuben's father was a captain and the Royal Prussian Engineer. At 14, the son joined his father in the military in the War of the Austrian Succession, in which Frederick the Great used the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI as an excuse to seize Silesia. This was the first world war, as Great Britain and France lined up on opposite sides and also squared off in North America in King George's War. In India, they called it the First Carnatic War, again between the French and the British. In the Caribbean and elsewhere at sea, they called it the War of Jenkins' Ear between the British and the Spanish.
He remained in the Prussian Army and participated in the Seven Years War, which was fought on five continents and at sea. He rose to aide-de-camp of Frederick the Great, however, he was nevertheless sacked when the war ended in 1763. The next year, he became the head of the army in Hohenzollern-Hechingen, a small principality in Germany. Money woes would plague him. In 1777, like many European military personnel, he sought to enlist in the American army. Each expected a high rank and lucrative pay. The Continental Congress had quickly learned that the Europeans were not as good as advertised, and that American soldiers often resented their higher pay and rank.
However, the French minister of war recommended Steuben to Benjamin Franklin, who was in Paris seeking aid. The rumors of homosexuality likely reached Franklin, who as a ladies man enjoyed gossip. But Franklin recommended Steuben for an uncompensated tryout.
Arriving in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on December 7, 1777, with his staff of three and his greyhound, Azor, the baron almost was arrested for being British as the men wore red coats. How comical it must have been for an officious general who spoke no English to deal with local authorities. But in Boston, they were the toast of the town. A mistranslation by Franklin had listed him as a lieutenant general. He took his good old time getting to Valley Forge, arriving there on February 23, 1778. Washington was impressed by Steuben's military appearance and command presence. Washington assigned lieutenant colonels Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens to attend him. They communicated in French.
On March 28, 1778, Washington replaced Major General Thomas Conway, an ally of Horatio Gates, with Steuben, promoting him to major general. Gates had lobbied Congress to get Washington's job as commander-in-chief. Henry Laurens, who had succeeded John Hancock as presiding officer of the Continental Army, maneuvered to block that attempt.
Steuben brought discipline to the encampment of about 20,000 soldiers. He trained and drilled a cadre of 120 soldiers who in turn used what they learned on their own troops. Undoubtedly he did not invent this, but he was the one European mercenary who was willing to educate American troops. The construction of latrines -- a novelty to some Americans at the time -- was as essential because sanitation saves lives. Disease such as typhoid accounted for most of the 1,674 deaths at Valley Forge in the six months the Continental Army wintered there. That was an 8% death rate. He also had the latrines built on the other side of the road, away from the mess halls.
Contrary to the stereotype of a stuffy Prussian officer, Steuben was a soldier's soldier. Enlisted men enjoyed his company as he could, after all, curse in seven languages -- and would.
However, his greatest contribution was the close-order drill, which won battles. Steuben introduced a close-order drill that involved eight counts and 15 motions, which was simpler than the Prussian drill.
Fire! One Motion.Washington gave Steuben a house at Valley Forge, which he shared with his aids-de-camp William North and Benjamin Walker. They likely inherited his property as Steuben never married nor had any children. They more likely were his surrogate sons than lovers.
Half-Cock — Firelock! One Motion.
Handle — Cartridge! One Motion.
Prime! One Motion.
Shut — Pan! One Motion.
Charge with Cartridge! Two motions.
Draw — Rammer! Two motions.
Ram down — Cartridge! One Motion.
Return — Rammer! Two motions.
But none of that mattered. Winning independence did. Americans knew they were up against the deadliest fighting force on the planet. Americans knew that they needed to be able to match the British in discipline. They marched out of Valley Forge on June 19, 1778, with a confidence they lacked heading in. Nine days later, they would face and defeat the British in the Battle of Monmouth.Steuben would stay in the military through the end of the war, commanding one of the three divisions at Yorktown despite his poor English language skills.
After the war, Pennsylvania and Virginia gave him land grants but they were in wilderness areas. New Jersey confiscated the estate of Jan Zabriskie, a loyalist, but the expense of repairing the war's damage to the property forced him to sell it off -- to a relative of Zabriskie. New York state came through with a nicer confiscated estate, which he lived in. After much lobbying by Hamilton, Congress finally awarded him a small pension in June 1790. He died on November 28, 1794, but his legacy lives on. He is a German-American hero and several cities still hold annual Baron Von Steuben parades more than 200 years after his death. A statue of the general stands at Lafayette Square near the White House. And where is he buried? At Steuben Memorial State Historic Site in Steuben, New York.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.